Q & A with Melissa Johnston

A headshot of a woman with brown hair and a turquoise tank top.

Director of Learning

First Orion

WITH THE DEMAND for tech talent going through the roof, IT Apprenticeships in Arkansas have taken off over the past couple of years. One of the earliest adopters of the concept was First Orion, the Little Rock-based mobile services provider whose CEO, Charles Morgan, is also Chairman of the Board of ACDS. Starting with three apprentices in the summer of 2018, First Orion now employs 33 people who’ve been through the program, amounting to 14 percent of the company’s workforce. We sat down with Melissa Johnston, First Orion’s apprenticeship coordinator, to hear how they go about growing their own tech experts.

You’re First Orion’s Director of Learning. That sounds like a cutting-edge position. 

It is. Companies that are more forward in their thinking characterize it as “learning” instead of “training.” Training and learning are two very different things. It’s true that when you go for training you are learning, but learning involves the whole person, and their whole experience. It’s not just training classes. It’s mentoring, it’s coaching, it’s programs. It’s involving them in different areas of the company that they may not normally work in. So the learning component of it is a much bigger piece than just training.

What prepares someone to become a company’s Director of Learning?

That’s a really good question. I think to prepare to be in a position like this you have to have had exposure to lots of different areas of a company and have done different jobs within a company. You also have to understand that learning is not just training. I have a Master’s degree in Interpersonal Organizational Communication from UA Little Rock. I’ve also worked in various positions for Acxiom and UAMS.

Organizational Communication means within companies?

Yes, communication within the context of a business. It’s about understanding how communication does and should flow in an organization.

I know you’ve taught school. But did you always want to be in the business world?

Growing up in Monticello, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be on Broadway, I wanted to be an athlete. I went through a phase of wanting to be a nurse or be in the healthcare field. I’ve wanted to do lots of different things because I have so many interests. 

I also like helping people, and I enjoy seeing someone go from not having a skillset to being a better person because of their learning, their knowledge, their education. I have been given many opportunities throughout my career that have brought me to where I am today. I want to give others the same opportunities.

What kinds of classes did you teach at UA Little Rock? 

After I received my Master’s, I stayed and taught in the Applied Communication Department. I taught the basic communications course, I taught interviewing, and I was also the director of their learning lab. It’s a lab where students come to work on presentations and get tutoring on assignments and things like that.

After a couple of years, I left UALR to go to Acxiom, where I was an Associate Developer. 

Wait a minute—you’re a tech person too?

It’s not that kind of developer. It’s a developer of people, not process. At Acxiom, each business unit had an AD who worked with them. The AD was the link between the team and human resources, or organizational development as we called it. We provided leadership coaching and guidance along with training and education for associates. 

I left Acxiom for UAMS, where I was the Organizational Development Director for about four years. Again, it wasn’t about training—it was the whole picture. We worked with leaders on personnel issues, like if somebody needed to move to a new department, what would that look like, what would they need, succession planning, that kind of thing. I also created and then led the UAMS Leadership Institute, which is still around today.

Okay, let’s talk about your work with First Orion’s apprentices—people who’re perhaps developers in the other sense. How much do you have to understand about what they’re doing?

That was my fear coming into this position. And the answer is, Not a lot. What I need to know is, Who are the right people to bring into the room to plan for each apprenticeship program. Program development is program development. You’ve got to have goals; you’ve got to have a way to measure; you’ve got to have the right people teaching. For the most part, our teachers are people within the company. We use our own people 90 percent of the time.

But isn’t a lot of the course work for the apprentices online?

That’s how it started. With the first two cohorts, Android and IOS, everything was online. The apprentices had round table discussions with their leaders, but all the lessons were online.

With our first Data Science cohort, we started bringing in presenters and people to teach, because that curriculum just didn’t lend itself to being online. My team is responsible for the development of the programs, which includes mapping the curriculum, sourcing for resources, and helping our employees with their materials.  We’ve learned a lot. I know a whole lot more about data science and software engineering and things like that. 

How does First Orion choose its apprentices?

We look for a balance between some degree of experience and their potential. Potential is important because the apprentice program is not for experts. The apprentice program is for people who have some degree of experience, either through college, or maybe one or two years outside of college, and they’re ready to have their career take off and have a place where they can make a huge impact. We also look for culture fit, which is as important as experience, if not more so.

Tell me about assessing culture fit. 

When we assess someone for culture fit, we’re looking for someone who is curious and willing to learn and isn’t satisfied with always doing things the same way. We also look for people who are willing to share and be transparent in their communication. That is an important component of our culture.  First Orion has a different culture. We’re not the norm, and people who come to work here find it fascinating that we have the culture we do. Charles Morgan sets the tone for our high-performance culture. He encourages accessibility—you don’t have to go through five people to get to a leader, to make a decision. I can go to Charles right now and share my ideas and he is open to talking with me. Here, everyone is a player coach. Everyone is encouraged to be a leader in their own way.

One of the things I’ve heard Charles say about apprentices is that they don’t have to unlearn things. Tell me about that. 

Oftentimes when seasoned people come from other companies, they have that company’s way of doing things so ingrained in them—and then they come to First Orion and our solutions are so different. It takes them a while to unlearn what they were previously doing and to start doing it our way. We look for apprentices who don’t have that level of experience so that they can start fresh with us. In about 10 weeks, we can teach them what would normally take a year to learn.

You talked earlier about potential. How do you assess that? 

It depends on what role they’re applying for. We use a test called Hacker Rank, and that requires them to solve certain problems, but they may have to go do some research to figure out how to solve the problems. It’s a timed test, and from that we can see if they got the problems right—and sometimes that’s not even the point. Sometimes how they tried to solve the problem is more telling. And how much time they spent working on the problems. From that, you can see their ingenuity and curiosity and drive. 

Hacker Rank is the main assessment we use, but we also have them do demonstrations. We have them solve problems in the interview setting. We typically do a couple of rounds of interviews. We’ll do a prescreen. If they make it past the prescreen, they come in for an interview with the leaders and team. We ask standard interview questions and have them demonstrate something related to their role—for example, a developer would demonstrate how they code.  

Prospective apprentices do a variety of things to demonstrate their knowledge, and if they’re someone who just does the bare minimum, they won’t be successful.  We look for someone who demonstrates that they will take the next steps to figure out the problem. 

How many apprenticeship cohorts have you presided over?

Since the summer of 2018, we’ve had 33 apprentices graduate and 32 of them are still working here full time. We had one person leave because he got an opportunity to work for a startup. 

We’ve had 11 different apprenticeship programs, focusing on Android, IOS, Data Science, Automation and Site Reliability, Product Analyst, and Software Engineer. They typically go for 10 weeks. Some of them have gone a little longer, and some a bit shorter, but 10 weeks is the average. The apprentices do projects throughout their program and a capstone at the end.

But they’re also working at the company during that time?

They’re not working with live data or clients or anything like that, but they are full-time employees. They receive benefits, salary, all that. It’s just that they’re in a learning environment for 10 weeks.

During a typical apprenticeship program, are there danger points or certain areas that you need to especially watch out for? 

Depending on the type of apprentice that you bring in, you have different challenges. Our apprentices are college graduates, so often they’re coming straight from the classroom. Sometimes they come in with a mindset of, I’m going to get a grade, this is pass or fail, I need to do my assignments, I need to turn them in. They’re still kind of in that mode, and that’s not what this is about.

We tell them that they’re being evaluated but there is no grade. This is not a competition. Everybody has a job. If we have four data science apprentices, we have four jobs.

But we tell them that what’s different about this and college is that they have to be engaged in the process. We want their ideas. We want them to take risks. We want them to try things, and have it fail, and figure it out. So it’s a more engaged process than college, and sometimes that transition is difficult. Sometimes it’s hard for them to get over that idea of an academic environment versus a work environment, where they’re learning. 

And then you’ve got people who come in with work experience but who haven’t been in a classroom in a while, so their adjustment is very different. Sometimes the challenge is just figuring out how to help the individual apprentice work with the process. 

Were you brought in specifically to coordinate the apprenticeship programs? 

Yes, the program was growing quickly. They needed one person to own it and be able to focus on it. I came in after the first two programs, IOS and Android, were underway. I was to be involved with the next program, Data Science, from the very beginning. I worked with the team to create a 10-week curriculum and help them develop the materials.  The programs have grown to the point that I now have someone on my team who is primarily responsible for the programs.

Using your own people as teachers, do you ever have anybody say, “Oh, I don’t have time to do this, I’ve got my work”?

Yes, sometimes that’s a challenge. We have to be flexible and help our employees figure out how to teach the classes and do their day jobs. Sometimes we have to move things around on short notice.

We do still use some online training. We use Pluralsight and Udemy, and we’ll give the apprentices access to that so they can do extra research. 

But in regard to our subject matter experts, we’ve found that people in the company realize that if they spend the time teaching these apprentices now, then later, when they finish the program, they’re so much better prepared and need less time in on-the-job training.

Sounds like First Orion’s apprenticeship program has become an important arm of the company.

It has. We’re growing and creating our own talent. We’ve had some internal employees go through an apprenticeship program to get a different job. We’ve had interns transition into the apprenticeship program. Our goal is to have eight cohorts a year if the business need is there. With up to five apprentices per cohort. The apprentice program can be a life-changing experience for our employees and it opens the door to so many opportunities. We have employees who started as apprentices and are now leading projects. It is very rewarding. 

What do you say to those employers throughout the state who like the apprenticeship idea when they hear it, but are afraid it’ll take too much of their time or cost too much money? 

I speak at a variety of Workforce development conferences, and I’ve been on seven or eight panels about apprenticeship programs. The first thing I say is, the preparation for the program is time consuming and can be costly to start up, but you will have a return on your investment. Your workforce will be up to speed more quickly and it will save money in the long run. 

Companies also need to partner with local resources like the Arkansas office of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Apprenticeship and Training, and the Arkansas Department of Commerce’s Office of Skills Development. This state has a lot of resources to help you get your apprenticeship program off the ground.

At First Orion, we’re an accredited program, which means that we receive some grant funding. The Arkansas Center for Data Sciences has wonderful resources and have helped talk us through that process and really helped us from a funding perspective. Marie Stacks at ACDS has been my lifesaver when it comes to filling out all the paperwork. That’s a whole process on its own. But I think the return on investment for the company is huge.